From day one I've been a big fan of state Superintendent Janet Barresi. As I've mentioned in various publications and public forums, she is an accomplished and visionary reformer. She tells the truth about student achievement, even when the truth hurts. She sticks up for parents (as opposed to, say, suing them). And she consistently talks about the importance of giving parents more choices, not only in K-12 but also in preschool (as witness her support both for Oklahoma's special-needs scholarship law and our tax-credit scholarship law, both of which can benefit four-year-olds).
Even in the policy areas where I disagree with Dr. Barresi -- putting three- and four-year-olds in taxpayer-funded institutional settings, for example -- I have no doubt that her motives are laudable. Her concern for children, especially underprivileged children, is evident. But I would respectfully suggest that that very concern could create a blind spot, and by correcting it she could enhance parental options and earn the gratitude of Oklahoma voters.
This morning the House Common Education Committee held an interim study focused on the age of children entering kindergarten. To argue against moving the kindergarten cutoff date from September 1 to July 1, Supt. Barresi teamed up with Margaret Erling, a lobbyist for the prominent liberal philanthropist and "early childhood education" booster George Kaiser -- unfortunate timing, perhaps, on a day when both a Wall Street Journal columnist ("Solyndra and a Billionaire's Guilt Trip") and Oklahoma's largest newspaper ("Questions Linger After Solyndra Bankruptcy") gave continuing coverage to Oklahoma's most prominent Obama supporter.
In her remarks, Supt. Barresi noted that Oklahoma's preschool program is very popular. Well, yes. Oklahoma parents signing little Johnny up for preschool or kindergarten routinely blurt out to reporters how much money they’ll be saving in daycare costs. So, yes, one could say they are "choosing" this "popular" program. As George Bernard Shaw taught us, "a government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul." Whether it's school lunches or Medicaid, the upper and middle classes have no problem taking advantage of welfare programs. (Penelope Trunk, whose career advice runs in 200 newspapers, recently came to the conclusion that "the U.S. school system is really just the biggest babysitting institution in the world.")
Supt. Barresi also reminded the committee that preschool is "voluntary." Again, this is true. What's not voluntary, of course, is working three months a year to pay the tax collectors (so they in turn can pay all these grown-ups with a vested economic interest in this unsuccessful but expensive middle-class entitlement). As education reporter Mike Antonucci once asked, "If the government, under the force of law, takes money from my paycheck every month to supply me and every other citizen with a Yugo, and I choose not to spend additional personal income on a Chevy, am I 'choosing' the Yugo?"
We have very strong SoonerPoll evidence that Oklahomans are not "choosing" preschool as "voluntarily" as it might appear. Indeed, most of them -- including low-income women -- would like to keep more of their own money so they could explore other options. So let's level the playing field -- give parents income-tax breaks, for example, and eventually wipe out the tax altogether -- thus putting a little more "voluntary" in these voluntary choices.
Supt. Barresi is right that "we all want children to be with a caring parent" until that parent decides it's time for the child to go to school. So why not promote public policies that can help make that happen? Like Gov. Mary Fallin, Supt. Barresi is already in good shape with the grasstops (the Chamber crowd, the denizens of Nichols Hills cocktail parties, etc.), and besides, it's hard to believe they would object to showing parents a little policy love. It's the grassroots (especially the conservative grassroots) she needs to cultivate. Tangible policy ideas recognizing the importance of Oklahoma's most important early childhood educators would help shore up that base and, as the SoonerPoll cross-tabs make clear, would earn her some new friends in every demographic.